“I don’t hate you, Zuri,” Darius says as he walks into the room with a lined trash bin and places it in front of the couch. He hands Layla a glass of water, and I glance up at him. He looks away. I look away.
“You got two hours, Layla,” I say as she curls herself up on the couch and closes her eyes. “And then you gotta pull yourself together so we can go home.”
She doesn’t answer. I shake my head, stand up, and nudge her gently. She moans, so I leave her alone.
It hadn’t crossed my mind that I’d have to wait for Layla while she sobers up. I didn’t ever think I’d be in the Darcy house again. Especially after our fight.
I look around his room and realize that it’s not at all what I expected. It’s way more . . . him. A video-game console and controllers sit on a gray rug in front of the couch. Canvases—some blank, some painted on, some drawn on—are all over the basement. Some are propped against the walls, some are hanging, and some are stacked up on a wide wooden table in the far corner of the basement. There are glass jars of paintbrushes in all sizes along the edge of the table. In another corner are a bass guitar and a keyboard.
Darius walks through a door at the other end of the basement, and I can spot a giant bed in that room. He comes out with a plaid blanket that he gently throws over Layla.
“Thank you,” I say. I cross my arms because I don’t know what else to do with myself in this place. Then I ask, “You paint? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I took painting classes at school and I liked it. It calms me a little. But playing music energizes me. Balance.” Then he points to a closed door on the opposite side of the basement. “That’s Ainsley’s room over there.”
“So it’s like you two have a whole basement apartment to yourselves?” I say.
“Yeah, we designed it that way. I mean, that’s why my parents wanted a big house. We lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, so . . .”
“So . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about, because me and my sisters share one room.”
“Zuri.” He sighs, still massaging his hand. “I can’t change anything about my life. . . .”
“Sorry,” I say, knowing exactly what he means by that. I sigh, look down, then look up at him. “You should do something about that. Do you have ice?”
He walks to a dark corner and turns on a light. He opens a small fridge and pulls out an ice tray. He holds an ice cube in his hand.
I laugh and shake my head. “Lemme help you with that. You got some sort of towel?”
He motions for me to follow him into his bedroom. I hesitate a little bit, but my legs have already agreed, because I walk in to see how beautiful his room is. High windows line the walls. There are hanging plants everywhere, and a giant fish tank sits along the wall. His bed is pushed up against the far wall, and it’s actually neat, with the covers pulled up and everything. The sound of running water from the fish tank makes the whole room feel peaceful. Shelves are mounted on every available surface, with books stacked up to the ceiling.
“So you’re an artist, a musician, a green thumb, a fish lover, and a reader?” I ask. “That’s sure a lot of stuff for someone who once told me they like empty spaces.”
“What can I say? It’s my little oasis,” he says, plopping down on his bed.
“Your oasis in the hood, huh? It’s just so different from the rest of the house.”
“Well, I’m different from the rest of the house,” he says. He motions for me to come sit next to him, but I don’t.
I spot a giant floor pillow in the corner, pick it up, and place it a little close to his bed, but not too close. “Different? Coulda fooled me.”
“I did fool you, didn’t I?” he says, pulling open a dresser, grabbing a T-shirt, and wrapping it around the ice. He holds it to his hand. “Sit on the bed. I don’t want my guest sitting on the floor.”
So we switch spots, and his bed is the softest thing I’ve ever sat on in my life. But I don’t let myself get too comfortable. I spot a picture of him as a little boy on his dresser—scrawny, wearing glasses, and with a thick book in his hand.
I sigh and roll my eyes. “I guess you did fool me. But you really didn’t have to get into a fight with Warren.”
“Yes I did. I’ve been waiting for another reason to bust him in his face.”
“Oh, so it wasn’t about looking out for my sister?”
“It was. I wouldn’t want what happened to Georgia to happen to Layla,” he says.
“Layla?” I ask. “What about me? He could’ve pulled that shit with me. I wouldn’t let him, but still.”
He bites his busted bottom lip and hangs his head down. “I didn’t think of that. You were so . . .” He inhales.
“So what? So tough? So bitchy?” I smile. “And too what? Too stuck-up? Too conceited?”
“All of the above.” He cocks his head back a little bit when he says this. But his eyes are soft, as if he’s owning up to everything that he is.
Or everything I thought he was.
“What are you saying? I was right about you? I thought you fooled me,” I say, looking down at my own hands and not at his soft eyes.
“I thought I was trying to fool you.” He inhales and leans in a little bit. “Zuri, you don’t think I know that this is the hood and guys around here would be messing with me and my brother? You don’t think I knew that I’d have a reputation as soon as I stepped out of that car? And I knew it wouldn’t be street rep, either. I saw it all over your face, Zuri. You couldn’t stand me. And according to you, Warren was your boy in the hood. Who was I to mess that up for you?”
I bite the inside of my cheek, still not looking at Darius. There’s some old blue nail polish left on my thumbnail, and I pick at that.
“Hey?” Darius says, lowering his head to make eye contact with me.
My body starts to feel weird. And I know this feeling. My insides are melting into sweet, gooey, sticky honey. So I quickly stand up from his bed. “I should check on Layla.”
“Give her a few minutes,” he says, while trying to get up too. He scrunches his face and holds the side of his belly.
I reach for his hand and help him up. When he does, we’re standing face-to-face. Sort of, because he’s taller than me. His lips are where my forehead is, so he quickly kisses it, as if that’s what I was asking him to do.
I step back.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to . . .”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I can’t be in here.”
He grabs my hand. “I get it. It’s cool. Let me show you something.”
I give him a surprised look as he pulls me out of his bedroom, past a sleeping Layla, and up the stairs leading out of the basement. He turns around and places his finger over his lips, as if I would dare say anything now.
The house is dark, but there are tiny dim lights all over that are enough for us to tiptoe our way up two flights of stairs. My heart is racing and my hand starts to sweat in his hand. My mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts about how this is not a good idea. But my insides seem to have taken over my brain, and in seconds, we’re walking up a short flight of concrete steps to the roof of his house.
There’s no ladder, no rusty metal door, no tar or blue tarp here. It’s as if this is a whole backyard, complete with a wide canopy, outdoor furniture, plants, and string of gold and silver Christmas lights that Darius turns on from some hidden spot. It all takes my breath away.
“Wow,” I whisper. “I didn’t know all this was up here.”
“You thought you knew everything, huh?” Darius says. He sits down on a wicker couch in the middle of the roof. There’s also a rug and wicker coffee table. It’s a straight-up whole other apartment on his roof!
“Yeah,” I say, nodding. “I did.”
He laughs and motions with his head for me to join him. I don’t think twice about it, because the sky here seems wider. And maybe there are more stars from this view. And maybe the moon shines brighter. Maybe everything is better from the roof of the Darcy house.